Understanding awe, magical thinking and religious ‘fervor’ in The New Kadampa Tradition with Dr Yuval Laor

Fanaticism and magical thinking

According to Daniel Shaw there are 6 methods cult leaders use to maintain their illusion of
superiority and control:

  • Purification of followers ego or mind
  • Only perfection is good enough
  • Inner deviance must be eradicated
  • Incessant urgency – for your time, dedication, money
  • Violation of boundaries becomes the norm in order to please the leader
  • Defend the leader no matter what

Followers are encouraged to keep their guru in their mind and heart all the time, and to follow only their spiritual guide’s wisdom.


According to Lifton (2014) mystical manipulation can be a powerful tool in thought reform. It relies on the feeling of awe –an overwhelming feeling of powerful admiration created by an extraordinary event or person. Awe can be produced many ways: through amazement at beauty, a deep connection with the vastness of the universe, or even the high experienced through release of endorphins or taking drugs. Any time we have a ‘peak experience’ which is unique, we feel awe.
Mystical manipulation is the creation of awe for the purpose of undue influence, and happens when someone else has manufactured, manipulated, or otherwise rigged the circumstances to force the experience of awe, in order to connect the ‘high’ feeling to something they – and only they – can provide’ (Open Minds Foundation).

Despite the fact that Kelsang Gyatso has not been seen in public since 2013, and is thought by many to have died or possibly to be struggling with dementia, senior NKT members do not allow other members to know what has happened to him (information control). The mystery surrounding his whereabouts appears to have elevated him to an even more magical and omniscient position in followers minds. Some, although not all NKT members come to believe that their guru is the living Buddha and therefore is an enlightened being. This would explain why, were he to have developed a degenerative disease in his old age, he could not be seen in public, as enlightened beings are not supposed to develop degenerative diseases.

Ex-members report that they heard many instances of magical thinking for example the idea that Buddhas had the power to intervene directly in people’s lives, could read their minds, and could predict the future. According to Stephen Batchelor, author of ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’, many Tibetan lamas also see these visualized figures not just as mere symbols or archetypes. Despite being ‘empty of inherent existence’, they are regarded as possessing both an agency that was independent of the practitioner and the power to intervene in human affairs by granting blessings and answering prayers. In other words, they functioned as gods.


I wrote about the concepts of awe and magical thinking in my original analysis of the NKT. And then I met Dr Yuval Laor, who studies and writes about religious fervor (a state of infatuation) and he blew my mind with his evolutionary psychology perspective. You can watch Yuval share his knowledge with me below. We ended up having a very in depth chat. He keeps it general and I make it specific to the NKT. I will type up a summary of this chat some time, but for now, it’s best just to watch.

Indoctrination/thought reform

Fervor and awe make us more vulnerable to indoctrination (thought reform). Those who attend foundation programme classes are required to memorise Kelsang Gyatso’s texts and to take exams where they simply repeat the content word for word. It is widely known that NKT members often start sentences with the phrase ‘Gesh-la says…..’ In this way they often come across like clones, repeating stock phrases, a phenomena that has led some ex-members of the NKT to refer to current members as ‘KelsangBots’. In the Greek story of Narcissus and Echo, Echo is so entranced with Narcissus that she repeats the last few words of his every sentence. It could be argued that in the same way, codependent NKT members repeat the sentences of Kelsang Gyatso in order to rely solely on his teachings as their guide for how to live their lives. For more information on thought reform in the NKT click here.

Yuval is willing to answer questions so please feel free to post any comments or questions below, or on YouTube, and I will pass them on to him. The book chapter mentioned is below.

Further reading and listening

The Open Minds Foundation’s page on fervor induction

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